Published: 21/09/2012

The textile factory in Karachi, Pakistan in which nearly 300 workers burned to death on September 12 had only weeks before received the coveted Social Accountability International’s SA8000 certificate, indicating that it was in compliance with the standards on working conditions and safety standards. The Italian company which performed the audit had previously issued 540 certifications, including 100 in Pakistan.

Bosses will always try to coach workers on how to respond to audits. But he Karachi factory had registered 250 workers with the public authorities, while employing up to a thousand. Locked doors can be opened on inspection day, but the factory contained no emergency exits. No factory in Karachi has been visited by an electrical inspector for at least the past 9 years. All this somehow escaped the attention of auditors who spent 4 days at the plant operating to what are said to be the highest international standards.

Like the notorious Foxconn factories in China, where auditors failed to detect toxic workplaces, child labour and massive amounts of overtime, the Karachi factory had been audited previously. The balance sheet of these audits has been hundreds of lives.

SA 8000 has suspended the auditors and is trying, according to its Executive Director, “To find out what went wrong”. But what went wrong, and will continue to go tragically wrong, is the marketing of corporate-funded certifications which substitute for worker health and safety committees rooted in independent trade unions and vigorous government enforcement of stringent workplace safety laws and regulations.

The Karachi fire inevitably evokes references to the notorious fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York, which in 1911 killed 146 garment workers. The doors at the Triangle factory, like the doors at Ali enterprises in Karachi, were locked. The bosses said it was on account of theft. The workers knew that it was to keep out union organizers.

Public outrage at the Triangle fire led to the enactment of significant safety legislation. The Karachi horror shows – again – that private ‘accountability’ schemes cannot be permited to replafe public accountability, regulation and strong unions at the workplace.